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Russia's return to Europe rights assembly ratified

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Strasbourg (France) (AFP)

Russia saw off a challenge from Ukraine to seal its return to the Council of Europe's parliamentary assembly on Wednesday, five years after its delegates were stripped of their vote in the pan-Europe rights body over Russia's annexation of Crimea.

One hundred and sixteen members of the Strasbourg-based assembly approved the powers of the Russian delegation, to 62 against, ending attempts by a furious Ukraine to block their return after a first vote on Monday night in favour of their reinstatement.

Russian delegates had been stripped of their voting rights in the pan-European rights body in 2014 after Russia annexed the Crimea peninsula from Ukraine.

Their return marks the first relaxation of the international sanctions that were imposed on Moscow for seizing Crimea.

The Ukrainian and Georgian delegations walked out in protest after Wednesday's vote and announced they were suspending their participation in the assembly session.

In a joint statement, members of delegations from Ukraine, Georgia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Slovakia, warned: "This step sends a very wrong signal to the country that has resorted to armed aggression, poisoning of individuals, does not observe human rights of its citizens and does not promote but seeks to destabilise democracies throughout Europe.

The mood in Moscow was triumphant, by contrast.

"That's it, the finale. Russian rights at PACE have been confirmed in full," Konstantin Kosachev, head of the foreign affairs committee of the Russian parliament's upper house said on Facebook, adding it was time "to roll up one's sleeves and get to work."

"Greetings to European russophobes," he added.

Ukraine's new President Volodymyr Zelensky had said Tuesday he was "disappointed" at the reinstatement of the Russian delegation, recalling how he had discussed the issue with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel on visits to Paris and Berlin last week.

"It's a pity that our European partners did not listen to us," Zelensky said.

Kiev insists there should be no international concessions to Moscow until it hands back Crimea and ends support for separatists in Ukraine's east.

- Integration milestone -

The Council of Europe, which is separate from the European Union, has no binding powers but brings together 47 European states to make recommendations on rights and democracy.

Its key institution is the European Court of Human Rights, to which citizens in member states can appeal if they feel their rights have been infringed.

Russia had responded to the loss of voting rights by boycotting the assembly and has since 2017 refused to pay its 33-million-euro ($37-million) share of the annual budget of the Council of Europe.

It had even threatened to quit the Council altogether if it was not allowed to take part in Wednesday's election of a new secretary general to replace Norway's Thorbjorn Jagland.

Russia joined the Council of Europe in 1996 under the presidency of Boris Yeltsin in what was seen at the time as a milestone for its integration with Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

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